St Ives Workhouse

There are few better ways to understand the raw edge of social history than to read about how the poor of St Ives were cared for. From John Cole, just 3 weeks old, to James Inglett aged 94. For a history of the St Ives Parish Poorhouse and Union Workhouse, inmate details and analysis read on.

Relief for the poor has been available for centuries. In 1601 Queen Elizabeth I passed the Act for Relief of the Poor. This made parishes responsible for the care of their poor. The cost was funded by a poor rate tax on property owners. Grants of money, food, clothing or fuel were made to those living in their own homes. By housing the poor in a single location, economies of scale applied. 


There was a parish poorhouse in St Ives before 1719. Below is a map showing the poorhouse in 1808. It blocked off the east end of Market Hill, as shown marked in red. 
In 1812 a new poorhouse was built in what is now Station Road.
By the early 1800s the amount spent on poor relief had quadrupled. Causes were an economic downturn and less need for agricultural labour. There was a widespread belief that the system was being abused. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 encouraged the building of union workhouses. Groupings of parishes, or 'unions', built their own. Soon there were hundreds throughout England.

Organised to discourage their use, a porter or relief officer had to approve entry to the workhouse. After a bath the inmate would be medically examined and issued with a uniform. Men, women and children were separated, as were able bodied and infirmed. Women did domestic chores such as cooking, sewing and laundry. Men performed hard physical work, such as stone breaking, bone crushing or oakum picking.

St Ives own Union Workhouse was built in 1834. The map below is from 1899. The building still exists. It now forms rather elegant apartments on the A1096 heading away from St Ives towards the A14. 
How did people end up in the workhouse? Having no-one willing to provide support during old age or sickness was a factor. Some were too poor to support themselves during high periods of unemployment. Unmarried pregnant women, disowned by their families, had little option but to enter the workhouse. Homelessness was another cause. Mentally ill and mentally handicapped were often assigned to the workhouse.

Workhouse medical treatment was basic in the early days. Female inmates provided the nursing care. Scandals of poor skills and hygiene led to legislation which improved conditions. From the 1880s the poor were admitted solely to receive medical attention. This marked the beginning of Britain's state funded medical service.

Having followed a period of severe hardship, entry to the workhouse would have been a distressing experience. Aged inmates with no family would face spending the rest of their lives in the workhouse. Mothers with young children might be widows, or abandoned. Their husbands may have travelled elsewhere searching for work. If with a single child, they were most likely unmarried. And most heart rending of all are the abandoned or orphaned children. Isolate and aged from as young as a few months.
St Ives Union Workhouse - Total inmates
What records remain? The most informative are census records of St Ives Union Workhouse inmates and staff taken every ten years from 1841. The graph above shows total inmates for the censuses analysed so far. There was a quadrupling of inmates between 1841 and 1851. The cause appears to be an employment crisis from the reduction in agricultural jobs and possibly availability of cheap labour from immigrants following the Irish potato famine. To access more analysis of each census and to read the census records themselves, just click one of the images at the foot of this page.

There are minute books dating from 1836 dealing with the Board of Guardian's general policies and issues. Also registers of births and deaths from 1836 to 1914 on microfilm. Additionally, newspaper cuttings giving information about the Board of Guardians' meetings can be read. Access to these will follow.


There are few records for the poorhouses. Parish vestry minutes make occasional references to funds, staff appointments, building works etc. There is also a small bundle of estimates for repairs and alterations dating from 1817 to 1826.
Thanks to Bob Burn-Murdoch and Mary Carter for some of the information shown above.

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